When I first stood for election in 1999 I was told not to expect to win. I was a Conservative – in fact, I still am. I stood in a ward that had never had an ‘Official’ Conservative councillor before, and which was just outside the boundary of the ward in which I lived. It was neither a Labour nor a Liberal Democrat stronghold. Like most of rural Fylde (where our MP Michael Jack had a 10,000 majority), it was an Independent bastion.
The advice I got was “George Bamber has the Catholic vote, he’s been there for 20 years and before that his father was there for 20 years. Just put out a leaflet and smile sweetly on election day. You’ll have more chance in 4 years time.” Thankfully I ignored that advice and persevered during the hard winter months of 1998. In that time, I discovered three key truths about Independents.
Firstly, they can, and do, become out of touch. Their self belief in their independent status makes them complacent. They believe that the national picture does not affect them and that it’s local and that’s it.
Secondly, they forget that an electoral ward is made up of lots of
people – not all of whom are in their own social circle. They forget
that their mates at the local church or down the pub are only a small
number of people – and that these people’s views and opinions are
skewed by bonds of friendship. They are told what they want to hear.
There is danger here for Independents and opportunity for established
parties. There is an untapped reservoir of voters who feel they have
been ignored. They may not have heard from their Independent
councillor – so if they hear from you, then that is something new to
them. But it is hard work.
I know many people say to me that they wish local government wasn’t run
on party political lines. They think that if only we could all get
along, and forget about our disagreements, and then the world would be
a happier place. Only Independents are rarely independent. As
Conservatives, we have a duty to put up a candidate for our supporters
to vote for, and a duty to campaign as hard against an Independent as
we would against Labour or the LibDems. We believe that elected
Conservatives are a good thing and the more of them the better. To
think that an Independent is just a “Conservative in disguise” is to
overlook the fact that many of them stand as Independents because they
know it is the only way they will ever get elected against a
Conservative Party they hate.
Because no one actually believes in the Independent brand – even those
who stand under that banner. There is no conviction, no brand loyalty,
no core principle and no rallying cry. It is all personal ego, all
personality, all “me me me” and all over the place.
The mantra of “People before Politics” that Independents like to put
forward is misleading in the extreme. The sly wink on the door step
that says ‘don’t worry, I’m really a *’ (*Insert voters preferred party
here) is a lie. Saying I don’t have a whip or take instructions from
London is a lie. Saying I’m independent and I can do what’s good for
you is a lie.
Three elections later I’ve had every one of these lies and a whole lot
more thrown at me, but the Independent force in my ward of
Medlar-with-Wesham is on the way out. They don’t top the poll any more
– I do. They don’t set the agenda anymore and they don’t tell the lies
they used to.
So how have I begun to get the upper hand? Hard work – no different
from any other successful politician at any level. You have to see
them as extreme Liberal Democrats but without the Focus leaflets. They
have a powerful message: “We’ll do what’s right for you”. You just
have to ensure your message is even more powerful. Leaflets, websites
and action. Prove to local people that Conservatives can and will stick
up for local people, and can achieve results that marginalised
Up and down the country, there are small pockets of Independents. Many
creep in, under the radar, in wards where we under-perform. You might
think it doesn’t really matter – but each ward we fail to win which we
should is one less on the final total of net gains by which the
national media judge us. Our responsibility to do our bit for the Party
is both local and national. Independents can easily become a natural
protest vote in council elections where we are seen to have become out
of touch, campaign inadequately or pick the wrong message. Once
established, they take hold, but they can be beaten. You just have to
In June next year I am taking on one of these Independents in the
elections to Lancashire County Council. The message is already going
out that I’ll be taking Instructions from London, following a whip and
am unsuitable. But the counter message has to be “Vote Conservative to
end Labour’s control of Lancashire. I am as independent-minded as the
next man, just in a structured and political way, and that I can get
Returning an Independent will not get rid of Labour, Returning an
Independent will not make the division any less controlled by a
established party and returning an Independent will still see huge
areas of the division disenfranchised as Independent Councillor X does
not go to your church, drink in your pub or shop in your shops.
A Conservative Councillor is a good thing. We need as many of them as
possible. An Independent Councillor is not a good thing, and we need
fewer of them.